In may of 2015 my parents were dropping me off at the airport for my flight to Bali Indonesia. My mom then decided it was the perfect time to tell me about some foreigners who had been killed by firing squad by the Indonesian government for selling drugs. I’m not sure what she wished to accomplish by telling me this. If her intention was for me to change my mind about taking the trip, it was clearly too late (we were already arriving at the airport). If her intention was to scare me from the prospect of selling drugs, then she must’ve mistaken me for some other guy who sells drugs. In either case, to me this illustrated the perpetual state of irrational fear that so many Americans live in. “Whatever bleeds leads”, is the motto of the US news media, focusing only on catastrophic events, and painting the impression that the world is an impossibly treacherously place. In reality, these events are such a tiny fraction of overall world occurrences, and in general people are just going about their daily lives. I too, used to be extremely afraid of travel. Ironically, the odds of dying of heart disease due to immobility resulting from sitting at home and watching the news in a state of paralysis over terrorist attacks, shark attacks, and impending world doom are astronomically higher than actually dying of terrorist attacks, shark attacks, and impending world doom. The latter has practically the same odds as winning the lottery twice, while the former is literally commonplace.
Eckhart Tolle, author of a popular book on spirituality called The Power of Now, distinguishes between two different types of fear: natural fear and psychological fear. Whereas natural fear prevents us from doing stupid things like stepping off a cliff, and walking in dangerous neighborhoods at night, etc., psychological fear is rooted in self limiting beliefs. I would define a self-limiting belief as any belief that is not based on reality yet prevents us from doing things that would contribute to our personal growth. An example of a self-limiting belief is: “Going to Bali is dangerous because some ex-pat drug dealers got killed by firing squad”. Is this an authentic or irrational fear?
I think the difficulty in examining self-limiting beliefs is that they can be so deeply rooted in our subconscious. In fact we may be playing out unconscious patterns that actually reinforce our beliefs. For example we may hold a self-limiting belief that nobody can be trusted, yet unconsciously choose relationships with untrustworthy people. So how do we deconstruct self-limiting beliefs and begin to end the unhealthy unconscious patterns that play out in our lives? I’ll use myself as an example to illustrate.
I was born in the Philippines and spent my earliest years during the Marcos era surrounded by extreme poverty, violence, and substance abuse. At a young age, I myself became the victim of both physical and psychological abuse and quickly developed the deeply rooted belief that the world was a dangerous place and absolutely nobody could be trusted. Although the abuse eventually stopped, I still suffered ongoing depression and anxiety which reached a critical threshold about two years ago. At that point I began getting professional help and was diagnosed independently by two different therapists as suffering from PTSD. The PTSD was a result of the trauma I suffered as a child, and I could no longer suppress the painful memories. In addition, the self-limiting beliefs that had been created as a result of my childhood experiences were coming into conflict with my worldview as I matured. Deep down inside I wanted to grow into a more self-actualized person, yet my beliefs were preventing me from doing so. Some of my most inhibitory beliefs were:
- If I don’t do what is expected of me (versus what I want to do) I will not be loved.
- Intrinsically I have no self worth, as I result I must seek self worth by getting approval from others.
- Nobody in this world can be trusted and everyone will betray or abandon me.
The first and second belief came into conflict with what I wanted to do at the core of my being. I wanted to live my life a certain way, yet I thought I was supposed to do what was expected of me in order to be loved. I had little love for myself and therefore needed to seek love and approval from others. The last belief kept me emotionally detached from people preventing me from finding true connection and community. I was also unconsciously choosing relationships with people who were emotionally detached because that was what I was familiar with. It was not optimal for my personal growth, but it was familiar, and what I had known thus far.
My new world views on the other hand were quite the opposite. I had a growing sense of my unique gifts as a person and had a desire to express these gifts. I was getting a sense of my true nature. As a result I had realized a sense of self-worth independent of external feedback – a self-worth that was not ego-driven, but rather, came from a much deeper place – one of pure awareness – a sense of “I am-ness”. I am a part of the universe – an inextricable and important part, just as each one of us is, and therefore I am inherently worthy. As I realized my worthiness, I also realized my inherent strength. I was no longer a fragile ego that needed to protect itself from others, and therefore I sought connection and community. Eventually, all three self-limiting belief began to fall apart.
As my old world view came into conflict with my new worldview, and as memories of my past traumas began to surface through the cracks of all the mental/emotional seismic activity, I felt that my life and my sanity were falling apart. To save myself from self-destruction, I ran away to Bali in April of 2015 and began the process of self-analysis and discovery.
One of the first steps in this process was to feed and nourish my innate desires, to help me realize that I’m worthy of living life on my own terms. I began to explore what I wanted in life and do more of it. I surfed more, did yoga more, played outdoors more, took more photos, began drawing and writing more, and created a blog. I found these things to be deeply satisfying, and as I did more of it, I became happier and more fulfilled. The next step in the process was to continue therapy and begin deconstructing my unconscious patterns and self-limiting beliefs. The subconscious mind is like an exceptionally efficient computer that will play out a pattern that may have worked in that past but has long since lost its usefulness. In my case, one such pattern was to distance myself emotionally from people. In the past this helped me to avoid emotional pain. But as I matured and was able to identify people and circumstances that were constructive and life-affirming as opposed to destructive, I no longer needed this pattern of emotional cocooning. However, mental patterns, like any habit take time to reconstruct, and the first step is to identify the pattern in the first place. Meditation and therapy helped me immensely with this process. Meditation practices present moment awareness, which can help in watching and identifying unconscious patterns, and therapy provides an external perspective to catch patterns that one may not be currently aware of.
Ultimately, psychological fear is based on self-limiting beliefs and as we confront and deconstruct these beliefs, fear begins to disintegrate. We then are more willing to step into the unknown, which is where all growth happens. When we can identify irrational fear for what it is, we can use it to identify areas of potential growth and allow it to serve as the fire for continued self-awareness and development. Life then becomes an ever-unfolding adventure of discovery and expression.